A recent article in the LA Times described Silicon Valley companies moving to “topless” meetings where laptops are banned. Whether it’s a classroom or a conference room, the perception of some teachers and conveners is that people aren’t really present unless they disconnect their devices and give their undivided attention to the meeting. In a two-part post, I will try to describe this situation from the perspective of both a student or employee who has endured too many disorganized and unproductive classes and meetings and as a teacher or convener who has looked out over too many students and attendees engrossed in other things. 

Here is what I imagine goes through the heads of typical students and employees when informed that a particular class or meeting will be topless.

“Look, I don’t mean to be rude and I really do enjoy interacting with people, but if you are going to ask me to stop what I’m doing and put down the tools that I’m using to do the things that are important to me, then please have something interesting to:

  • Tell me that you couldn’t tell me as well via memo, email message, or online post.
  • Show me that you couldn’t show me as well by directing me to a book or online video, podcast, learning module, demonstration, or simulation.
  • Engage in with me that we couldn’t do as well individually.

If any one of these things are true, then I will gladly give you my full attention. If none of these things are true, then I would ask you to reconsider why you have asked me to meet with you. Please don’t insult me by telling me that it’s because you are the boss, that you don’t trust me to read/learn/do things myself, or that you don’t have time to learn how to use the tools that I use every day to coordinate, communicate, and collaborate. If you try to force me to pay attention to you, I might obey and give you what looks like my attention, but you should know that my mind is elsewhere.”

“Although I may look like a device addict and I certainly have read the occasional text message when I should have been paying attention to something else, the truth is that I am not really distracted by my devices. I am simply choosing them instead of you because I don’t understand why I am here. I have no stake in this meeting. I didn’t even know what was on the agenda until I walked in and sat down. So far, you haven’t engaged me in any activity that is meaningful to me and that I couldn’t do outside of this meeting. I don’t want to cause a fuss and embarrass you, so I am just going to sit here quietly and do something else, until it’s clear to me that my presence is important. I am fully capable of giving primary attention to my instant messages while monitoring the stream of activity in this room. If I hear something that sounds interesting or important, I will stop what I am doing and attend to you.”

“You should know that I actually wish things were different. I’m tired of coming to these meetings and getting so little out of them. I also appreciate how frustrating it must be for you to look out over a group of people who don’t seem to be paying attention to anything you’re saying. I would much rather spend the time we have together productively and I’m willing to make a deal with you. I will come to the next meeting fully prepared to engage with you if you promise to:

  • Prepare for our meeting. I can tell immediately when you’re unprepared. Spend some time planning for the meeting. If your plan includes spending over 25% of our time together telling me something, then you are not prepared. If there’s something that we could accomplish before the meeting that would allow us to start our face-to-face work together at a deeper level, then let’s do it. There are some very good tools out there for facilitating this work online. Let’s use them. If you aren’t prepared for the meeting, then cancel it.  
  • Prepare me for our meeting. I am not a meeting addict. I am so tired of attending fruitless meetings and I have no reason to believe that the next one will be any different. You’re dealing with a biased and reluctant participant here. Help me to change. How are we going to spend our time together? What do you hope to accomplish and what’s my role? Help me see that my presence in this meeting will actually be important for both of us.
  • Relax about device prohibition. First, I use my laptop, not paper, to take notes: deal with it. Second, there are messages that I might receive during our time together that are more important than this meeting. Like you, I have a life outside of this room and sometimes it intrudes. I will keep my phone on stun, my audio muted on my laptop, and minimize the intrusions. Third, remember that my time is valuable too. If you are engaging me, I won’t have time to check my email. If you are not engaging me, then I am going to do something that I value. I understand completely that this behavior shouldn’t distract others in the meeting who you might be engaging.
  • Develop your skills. Nothing personal, but your teaching/facilitation skills could be better. Becoming a better meeting facilitator and teacher is a matter of continuous improvement. There are all sorts of methods and tools that you can use during meetings to engage me and support our work together. If you need ideas or assistance developing your skills, reach out to those in your organization who can help you learn. Don’t be afraid to try something new at the next meeting, but please make sure it’s not just that warm, fuzzy stuff you learned at your last leadership workshop. I like socializing and team-building, but the bottom line is that we have met in this room to work together.

In the grand scheme of things, we have so little time together and it’s so difficult in today’s world to get people to sit down in the same place at the same time. Let’s make the most of it.”

Yours truly,

Ken the Student/Employee